1. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder
Her graceful form (7:1-5)
Western European beauties tend to be severe, slim and unsmiling, so delicate that they might be blown away like twigs in the breeze. Some third-world cultures like their women to be more fleshed out. The wall-paintings of ancient Egypt portray their women as very slim and scantily dressed. These stand in stark contrast to the buxom roly-poly nudes of the medieval renaissance period of European art.
It is more than ever clear that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
We see what we want to see, not what is actually there. We filter out that which inconveniently obtrudes. The same happens in photography, as well as in drawings and paintings. The tricks of angled illumination, of tinting and shading, all create an atmosphere of fantasy. But this is the goal of all art forms, to soften the harsh realities of the life we live and to project us into a safer more secure world of escape.
However coolly seductive the artificially created images of beauty in various art forms may be, they are totally eclipsed by the warm pulsating reality of beauty in the flesh. And our lover, confronted with the radiance of his beloved, can only cry out in ecstasy and extol her beauty in the verses which follow.
2. Burning desire drives staying power
A man who has not passed through the inferno of his passions has never overcome them. Carl Jung.
Bishop Basil of Caesarea taught young males who fell prey to lust:
‘When you see the most beautiful woman in the world, go with your mind to her grave a few days after she has died. Such a terrible odour and putrid flow comes from her body, such that all the latrines in the world don’t smell as bad. Behold what you were lusting after!’
He would also say,
‘Death, death, death! The coffin, the shovel, the spade, the pickaxe …’
Perhaps we need not go to that extreme, but we may all find it helpful to look upon someone whom we lust after from the perspective of their deathbed and ours.
A duet of desire (7:6-10)
In Genesis 3:16 it is the woman’s desire for her husband. In the Genesis context, some have hotly disputed the sexual element and the suggestion has been made that the woman’s desire is actually to dominate her husband, as sin’s urge is to dominate Cain in Genesis 4:7. So then the result of the fall is the disruption of mutual complementarily into one of a desire for mutual domination, the one over the other. Be that as it may, our lovers here in the Song are not trying to dominate each other. She is giving herself to him as his willing partner or opposite number. If the language of the boy seems domineering, that is only because of the strong natural urge for fulfilment once desire has been roused. The urge for consummation is violent for both the girl and the boy.
More adventure + More romance = more passion
Love in the countryside (7:11-13)
The girl wants now to do something about their mutually aroused desire and erotic excitement. Again the theme is love in the open country (literally, in the Hebrew, ‘field’). She is inviting him to spend the night in the ‘henna bushes’. It is most likely that the latter is the meaning here. They want to be far away from human habitations, they are seeking the solitude of the rustic bower. They are to go on a tour of inspection of the springtime, to see whether the vines have budded, and the pomegranates are in bloom. There, in the early morning, in the fragrance of the misty countryside, among the blossom and budding fruit, she will give herself totally and unreservedly to her beloved.
Of course, the fantasy of the lover’s love-making is an illusion! Such romantic notions are too rapidly frustrated by the intrusions of nettle rash, soldier ants, bumble bees and stony ground, to say nothing of ragged urchins peeping through the undergrowth.
The girl hardly seems to be in need of the mandrakes as an aphrodisiac! Together, they explore new ways of stimulating and pleasing each other in their physical relationship. The girl in these verses is again taking the initiative in furthering the progress of their love-life. She is being very suggestive and seductive. She is creating a mental and physical environment in which their union may be consummated with the maximum intensity and minimum of inhibition. She even hints that she is able to teach him a thing or two.
So what has this to teach us today? Perhaps it may act as a stimulus to revive a flagging physical relationship by being more adventurous, more romantic and less mechanical! What really matters is that it is her or him that we are concerned for in our mutual enjoyment, and not just ‘it’. If the sparks fly and the earth moves, then well and good. If they don’t, the tension may be released by dissolving into laughter. For even some of the most carefully laid plans designed to lead to the giddy heights, may on occasion fall flat. Of course, we should try again and be more relaxed about the whole thing, breaking up dull routines with spontaneous outbursts of tenderness. So shall we make room for the “serendipitous enjoyment of our whimsical passions”.
Not just a piece of paper
A longing for intimacy (8:1-4)
If only … if I found, you … I would kiss you … I would lead … I would bring … I would give you . .. The girl has probably worked herself up into a frenzy of desire, so that she imagines she is lying with him (8:3) in fond embrace.
The lovers so far in this particular sequence have had very much a private relationship. It is most likely that in this part of poems, the lovers are neither betrothed nor married. Their behaviour (7:11-13), is hardly characteristic of an engaged or newly wed couple. Although their love is very private, they long for public recognition of their relationship. They want all the world to know that they are in love.
Our ignorance of the particular circumstances of this public display of marital affection make it difficult for us to draw any general conclusions. Social mores in the area of what is acceptable public behaviour are very much a matter of cultural preference. For example, in many western countries, romantic kissing and fondling in public is becoming the norm, whereas in more conservative third-world countries, even holding hands in public is frowned upon. In conservative Islamic nations there is often no public social intercourse between the sexes.
In her mother’s house, the boy has to be on his best behaviour; he is being inspected to see if he meets with her approval. But the boy must find this atmosphere rather suffocating and inhibiting, even irritating and frustrating. For it acts as a brake to his amorous intentions. And yet it does actually encourage the polite and less intimate conventions of social intercourse. It may even enable the two love birds to see each other in a slightly different light. For it is all too easy for them to be so self-absorbed and engrossed in each other, that they fail to see how they behave before friends, relatives and more distant acquaintances.
The whole unit of 8:1—4 is ambiguous. At the surface level, there is a strong movement from the public social realm to the privacy of loving intimacy. Yet hovering in the background are her mother, a brother and the daughters of Jerusalem. These public figures seem to act as a brake on the
amorous activities of the young lovers, so they are in constant tension. They want to be free of the restraints of society, yet they want to possess that public recognition of their love. It is like driving a car with the brakes on; a lot of unproductive heat is generated. The solution to this impasse is either to step off the accelerator and allow things to cool down (‘do not stir up love …’) or else to be recognised publicly, then take off the brakes and forge ahead. Such public recognition by society is a valuable cement. The marriage certificate is not ‘just a piece of paper’ which transforms cohabitation into an acceptable relationship. But it is a public exchange of vows that the couple will support and edify each other ‘for better, for worse, in sickness, in health, till death do us part’.